If I asked for a show of hands Sunday morning for how many people have ever been hurt by someone else’s words, I think it’s safe to say that everyone would raise their hands. Those of us who are older can probably think of multiple wounds we’ve received from the sharp arrows of others’ words. But even the youngest can relate: In surprise I spoke loudly at Jacob for something he did last week, but he thought my raised voice meant I was angry; with big tears and short breaths, he turned away from me to snuggle with and hide by Monica. No one is immune to hurtful words. There is probably no cliché more wrong than Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
People have known for a long time that that saying is a lie. Written hundreds of years ago, the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that the command to “not murder” (Ex 20:13) goes beyond not taking another person’s life. When we – with the help of God – agree to live by the sixth commandment, we strive “not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbour – not by my thoughts, my words, my look, or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds…” (Lord’s Day 40, Q&A 105). Human nature – too often my nature and your nature – is that we say nasty things about people, and probably think things that are even worse, regardless of whether or not they’re even true. But this is not at all what it looks like to love our neighbours as ourselves.
So, what can we do about this? I suppose one option is to duct tape our mouths shut for the rest of our lives. It’s extreme, yes, but it guarantees that we’ll never again say something that hurts another person.
Or, perhaps the words of the apostle Paul are more helpful: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Here is a better direction in which to take our thoughts and words…